While monitoring the usual channels on Telegram in mid-December, Q Origins came across a somewhat unusual post: a comment from a user, reshared by the channel owner, relating the user’s experience with “communistic films” shown to them in church in the 70’s: portrayals of a feared future under totalitarian rule, which the user said gave them nightmares. She also said “I’m praying, believing, and acting like it is going to be they that face the firing squads, and their heads that roll off the sword.” Other users identified the films as the Thief In The Night series, released from 1972 through 1983, dramas predicting possible events during the Tribulation prophesied in the Bible.
It’s not surprising that this would come up in a QAnon-related channel. QAnon itself is a belief that the world is under the control of evil, Satanic leaders, but that a period of intense strife is coming during which they will be cast down, and godly rule will replace them. This is also the general outline of biblical eschatological belief in evangelical Christianity, one of QAnon’s largest constituent bases: the predicted details vary depending on who you ask, but the overall structure of evil being ultimately overthrown by good through massive violence is shared between both belief systems.
The film series begins with the Rapture: suddenly and without warning, Christians all over the world vanish without a trace, caught up into heaven, leaving behind shocked and bewildered non-believers. The UN steps into the chaos and forms a global government called the United Nations Imperium for Total Emergency: UNITE for short. UNITE institutes a global identification system, which is the Mark of the Beast, and begins requiring all world citizens to be registered with the Mark. Those who refuse are criminalized and persecuted; all the while, other prophesied natural events wrack the Earth: earthquakes and other natural disasters, nuclear war, supernatural beasts. The film culminates with the spiritual and physical salvation of the protagonists, the death of their persecutors, and the strong implication that Jesus will return just after the screen fades to black.
Other comments on the Telegram post from people who remembered the films fell roughly along two lines. Some sympathized with the original post by relating their own traumas related to A Thief in the Night and other similar evangelical media: one such user wrote, “The church we attended way back in the 70s had a whole series about end time. […] Terrified me. Was maybe 6 or 7. Is why I avoid Revelations to this day.” Others, however, longed for such terror in churches again. “I remember those movies!!! My, how the churches have changed!!! It’s almost impossible to find a good church with a pastor who stands for truth!!!”
The series did not arise in a vacuum. The first film, released in 1972, followed closely on the heels of Hal Lindsey and Carole Carlson’s 1970 prophecy explainer The Late, Great Planet Earth; the second and third films took theological direction from Stanley Ellisen’s Biography of a Great Planet, 1975, another eschatological guidebook; Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins credit the series for inspiring their Left Behind books, an updated echo of the same themes. On a grander scale, Thief in the Night and its sequels came at a time when evangelical Christians were launching new campaigns of spiritual warfare, weaponizing scriptural interpretations against social change in topics ranging from abortion and gay rights to computers and science.
Understanding the religious, psychological and political motivations behind adherence to and promotion of eschatogical thinking in evangelical Christianity can help to explain why QAnon, cast from the same ideological mold, has also fared so well in that community.
From Jesus to Jenkins
Christianity’s Apocalypse and QAnon’s Storm are similar doctrines and drive action for similar reasons, but they are not the only parallels. In fact, various stages in the development of QAnon narratives mirror stages of Christian doctrinal structure, and develop from one to the next for similar reasons.
The natural entry point to Christianity for the uninitiated is in the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament which tell of the life and teachings of Jesus. While interpretations differ in the details, Christians generally agree that the gospel of Jesus is about God’s mercy on sinners through the sacrifice of his son, and emulating that mercy through self-sacrifice, elevating and caring for others with humility and generosity. Jesus taught many specific things along those lines: to love your enemies, to care generously for your neighbor, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit those who are in prison. He compared his disciples to a city on a hill, a place of refuge and safety. He said that his disciples would be known by their love.
In a similar vein, the QAnon movement’s earliest role was to be messengers of the good news to the world. Q’s earliest posts explained that the anons were being informed in advance of the events to come, so that they could explain to the normies what was going on when their favorite politicians and celebrities began to be rounded up and arrested. Q instructed the anons, a couple of days before the Storm was supposed to begin, to “prepare messages of reassurance based on what was dropped here to spread on different platforms.” The anons were to serve as Q’s apostles, carrying his own gospel into the world as a service to mankind.
Over time, however, both Christianity and QAnon converted themselves from ideologies of service into loci of power, each in their own way. In the case of Christianity, it became the actual religion of empire with the conversion of Emperor Constantine of Rome, entangling with secular government and becoming enamored with earthly things rather than heavenly things, as the Apostle Paul had warned against. In the case of QAnon, the change was precipitated over time by an unending parade of failed predictions, accompanied by an unceasing barrage of ridicule from outsiders which caused QAnon to see themselves as a victim group rather than messengers of victory.
In both cases, these changes served to repurpose their respective movements from universal servants to self-interested standalone communities; and in both cases, a loss of real or perceived control pushed those communities to use tactics that were at odds with their original missions, in an attempt to regain their grip. The resurgence of apocalyptic messaging in evangelical media in the 1970s coincides with other responses to progressive social changes during that period, including opposition to abortion rights, LGBT rights and environmental conservatism. Some of these are more defensibly religious issues than others, but all of them represent an entanglement of religion and politics, and an abuse of religious fear as a motivator for political action. QAnon, while being a strongly religious movement, largely opts instead for classic nationalist themes and conspiracy theories for their incentives.
Fighting Fire with Fire
Over the past several decades, Christian conservative leaders have wielded many versions of religious terror to motivate their congregations toward political action. Religion-fueled court battles over abortion continue to this day. Various laws and legal cases regarding gender identity, sexuality and religious opinion on such are repeatedly in the news and before various legislative bodies as well. Even in cases where a direct religious opposition is not at the forefront of the discussion, religion influences politics in more subtle ways from the background. Medical technologies such as prosthetics or gene therapy, which border on or cross into transhumanism, for example, often fall afoul of Christian conservatism that decries “playing God” and believe the human body to be a temple, sacred in its natural form even when that form is damaged or defective. Or regarding environmental conservationism, it’s not uncommon to hear excuses for destructive practices couched in religious language about the impending end of the world, or that such devastation is a “natural consequence” of man’s wickedness, with no hint of irony to be found.
Christians often excuse openly harmful behavior as necessary for the greater good of the nation. They point to Old Testament prophets, who explained tragedies that befell the nation of Israel–which many Christians consider to be a model for the United States, seeing the US as God’s “other chosen people”—as punishment for the wickedness of the nation. They reference passages that deal with God’s blessings on a righteous people or wrath on a sinful nation. In their view, it is better to perhaps make small transgressions such as neglecting the sick or oppressing the poor, if such small-scale sins somehow make the nation on the whole “more Godly.” It would be better, for example, to bomb or burn down abortion clinics than to allow them to operate and risk the wrath of God. The thought process is not limited to national action, either: the recent case of a mass shooter who targeted women at spas in his town because they “tempted him to sin” is one tragic example of the thought process becoming a stochastic danger on its own, even without an effort to affect state or national policy.
QAnon is no different. In a post on November 2nd, 2017 warning the anons of supposed planned operations that coming weekend, Q wrote “these crumbs are not meant to scare anyone but merely inform.” On November 5th, they wrote “we are at war.” The anons’ role was ostensibly still to inform the masses, leaving the “warfare” to the Q team– at least until June 24, 2020 when Q wrote “you have been selected to help serve your Country […] Welcome to the Digital Battlefield.” In that post, they also gave specific instructions as to methods of “information warfare” across social media. With the election looming, the pandemic raging, the Trump administration under fire on multiple fronts and QAnon as a movement similarly suffering, Q drafted their evangelists into the fighting forces, training and equipping an insurgency in lieu of their failed proselytization. It should be noted that Q’s followers had long before this considered themselves engaged in “meme warfare,” countering one narrative with another. But Q, here, refocused the battle from a conceptual struggle of ideology and messaging to a concrete battle between the people who subscribed to Q’s belief system and the people who denied it. In describing e.g. methods for defeating moderation systems on social media, Q implicated those systems as the enemy, and by association, the people and companies involved in operating or supporting them.
Reframing the “battle” in this way causes the conceptual thinking to carry over to physical action. Perhaps best known was the literal interpretation some of Donald Trump’s supporters took of his statement on January 6, 2021 – “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore!” But to this day, out of sight of most of society, exhortations toward civil war, citizens’ arrests and extralegal tribunals continue in Q-centric social media spaces. Any clear-headed review of such tactics and methods would indicate that, for example, suspending constitutional due process in order to persecute political rivals is in fact anti-American; but viewed from the perspective of militant QAnon, they believe it would be better to transgress the Constitution if it means they can save the nation from the Cabal. In the same way that Christians justify un-Christian behavior as “necessary evils” in the battle for the nation, QAnon justifies their militance as required for the preservation of the nation.
Given that QAnon is largely composed of religious Christians and others culturally influenced by Christianity, it is not really surprising that the thought patterns baked into modern Christianity would be deployed effectively in moderating or motivating QAnon action and reaction. It turns out that the threat of some imagined future consequence can be quite compelling, with large enough perceived threats justifying large departures from fundamental principles for many people. Whether the threat is an apocalyptic divine punishment on the sins of the world, or a takeover by a communist global Cabal, understanding the hypothetical motivations of political and personal action is vital to any discussion of how we address or prevent the violence that such beliefs lead to.